Tuesday 23 September 2014

My review of 'Seth's Dominion'

Way back in 2006 I was asked to be interviewed for a NFB documentary about Guelph, Ontario cartoonist Seth. At the time I was working at CBC Toronto and doing freelance writing on the side, the latter of which served to introduce me to Seth. I had been reading his work for years but had only been introduced to him a few years before after I wrote an article about the historic/legendary weekly lunches that took place in Toronto between him, Chester Brown and Joe Matt (friends, and fellow cartoonists).

Anyways, during the 2006 Toronto Comics Arts Festival the very enthusiastic director Luc Chamberland asked me to answer some questions on camera for a film he was making about Seth. I agreed. Forty-five minutes, and many retakes later, I shook his hand and asked when I might expect to see the final product. "The ways things are going at the NFB these days it could take a few years," he said. Aside from seeing him briefly the following year when he filmed Seth's on-stage appearance with Chet and Joe at The Doug Wright Awards, that was the last I saw of him - or heard anything about the film. 

Then out of nowhere, this summer, news of the film's release bubbled up online. Not only was Seth's Dominion (great name) finally being released but its world premiere was happening at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, which was taking place in my hometown. Serendipity never felt so good.

So, last Friday I'm standing in the line-up outside the Bytowne Cinema when I notice a man dressed in a snappy hat and vest staring at me. No, it wasn't Seth; It was Luc. We quickly caught up, he thanked me for my interview and informed me that I made the final cut. Great, I thought. That means I have to watch a much younger version of myself on film (ugh) and I won't be able to pitch a review of the film. So I figured I'd just chime in on the old blog.
See, Luc is a very spiffy dresser

Before I do so I should say, for those who don't know, Seth and I have worked on a few projects together (The Collected Doug Wright being one of them) and co-founded the Doug Wright Awards together. That being said, knowing Seth and his work probably made me a tougher critic of the film - and I certainly had my concerns going in.      

Two things concerned me. One was the length of time it took to complete the film. I know I'm significantly different in 2014 than I was in 2006, and so was Seth. The other bigger concern was the use of animation. The road to adapting comics to cartoons is often a bumpy one, simply because people fail to understand that the two are different mediums that require a different skill set to effectively pull off. So when I heard that Luc had adapted some of Seth's comics into animated form I admit that I was nervous since in my experience the adaptation process more often than not loses something essential to the original comics.    

Luckily, any trepidations were quickly dismissed within the first five minutes of Seth's Dominion. The director wisely sets the tone for the film during the opening credits by having a clip of Seth expressing his amusement at the NFB's request to phrase his answers to questions "in declarative statements" only. This gets a laugh in early, but it also allows a bit of Seth's natural gregariousness to shine through; which serves as a counter-balance to the mostly serious subject matter that makes up most of the rest of the film. It also acknowledges the inherent but unspoken lie that rests at the heart of all documentaries; the notion that they are telling an objective truth, rather than engaging in story-telling.    

The rest of the film does a remarkably artful and efficient job of conveying Seth's life and career in a way that felt fulsome and fresh even to someone like me, who brings a robust understanding of the subject to the table. Chamberland leaves few stones unturned, exploring Seth's published comics work, his stamp diaries, his Dominion cardboard building project, his puppetry, his home renovations, and even his design work on his wife's barber shop. (There's even a great little in-joke waiting in that last part for eagle-eyed aficionados.)

The doc is divided almost evenly between on camera interviews with Seth and people who know him (Chris Oliveros, Chester Brown, Joe Matt, *me*, his wife Tania) and animated versions of his stamp diary strips. 

The interviews are insightful, especially Chester's, and it was a thrill (to me anyway) to see Joe Matt reemerge from the aether like some sort of grinning Ghost of Comics Past to comment of Seth's nature. (Which he does a very good and characteristically honest job of.) It would have been nice to see a few more interviews with the likes of Beguiling owner Peter Birkemoe or Jeet Heer, or any one of Seth's other cartoonist pals -- Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, Dan Clowes, Chip Kidd, Ivan Brunetti -- but that's a minor quibble, especially given the constraints of time and budget.   

Then there's the animated segments, which I admit I was prepared to hate. Yet, when that little animated Seth pops up early on to explain the unique nature of the comics language I was immediately hooked. It turns out that Seth makes a perfect cartoon character. He certainly has the uniform for it. I mean, look at this:

His ever-present fedora and suit make perfect sense in animated form; even his voice -- with that trademark nasal twang -- is an ideal fit for a cartoon character. At one point it crossed my mind that he might have missed his true calling. 

The animated segments are done digitally (or "tradigitally", a new term i learned at the festival), which typically would leave me cold. But whoever animated these segments had a keen understanding of the morose, human engine that drives Seth's best work. The result are some of the most engaging cartoons I've seen in decades - and a true heir to the NFB's legacy of top-rate animated films.  


The tone here is flawless. Nothing is lost from page to screen; the music, voices and colours are bang-on, and combine to give the viewer a deep understanding of Seth's most powerful comics work. Then there's the simple "Wow" factor of seeing his comics come to life -- let's not discount the simple pleasures of life shall we?  

I was particularly excited to see the adventures of Kao-Kuk -- Seth's Inuit astronaut character from the pages of The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists -- come to life on screen. It was so good it left me yearning for a Kao-Kuk spin-off film (Luc, are you reading this?)  

While it's too early to gauge the general public's reaction to Seth's Dominion, based on the reception it got at the premiere I think it will appeal to Seth fans and non-fans alike. As a whole, it does a masterful job of gathering all of Seth's varied artistic outputs and presenting them together with a through line that taps into the heart of his artistic impulses. Fresh yet familiar, it's bound to please. And judging on the fact that it won the OIAF's Grand Prize for Best Feature, I'm sure you'll be able to judge for yourself once it screens in a theatre near you.   

As for my contribution to the doc, I suggest you do what I did: close your eyes and wince.


Eric Hoffman said...

Great review! I'm very much looking forward to seeing this. When Dominick Grace and I interviewed Seth last fall for our SETH: CONVERSATIONS book (forthcoming in Feb 2015 from University Press of Mississippi; shameless plug), Seth wasn't sure what to expect of the doc and maybe cautiously downplayed its merits. But your positive reaction has restored some of my expectations of greatness. Thanks, Brad!

Brad Mackay said...

I believe the term is "shameless huckster" Eric. ;) But seriously, thanks. THe film is very good and I'm sure you'll enjoy it.